-Rev Melissa Fain-
This meditation was written after watching the two part Simpson's Episodes, the Warren' Priests.
On my bookshelf sits many books, but next to my "Gospel According to Harry Potter," and my "Gospel According to Starbucks," sits my "Gospel According the Simpsons."
I know, I'm aging myself. No one makes those books anymore. It's too Christo-centric. Seriously, I haven't even looked at them in years, and all three would be gathering dust if it wasn't for the fact that I recently dusted my bookshelves. I don't watch Simpsons much anymore either. It just doesn't engage me the way it used it. Then the Simpsons took a two-part episode discussing the relevancy of church, and I found myself pulling up Hulu to watch.
What I've come away with was a shallow look into the real issues plaguing modern church, and they take the face of the different characters. It looks into our language as we fail to see how both sides were wrong, and how we dismiss either side without really exploring why we are dismissing them. It's not the Gospel According the Simpsons. It the Church According to the Simpsons.
Rev Lovejoy- Tradition over Substance
As the first episode begins, Rev Lovejoy is delivering a sermon to a near empty sanctuary. No one wants to be there, and those remaining is anticipating the end of the service.
It was the problem so many churches were facing leading up to the lock down. The attendance was dwindling, Worship was static. What was the point? No, really! What was the point? Church had become a chore, not an experience. A check mark, not a relationship.
What The Simpson's failed to do was capture the fear that lived in all these ministers. Do you think most of us were ordained to uphold the status quo in dying churches? No! They played the problem like it was Lovejoy's the whole time. The writers played it like the congregants would want change, if they only knew it existed. In reality, the problem was shared between Lovejoy and the congregants. Lovejoy was stuck in the word "tradition," keeping to the routine like an old safety blanket. The congregants were encouraging this behavior.
The Congregants- They triggered me
It was played for laughs. The congregation heard Bode preach, the newly hired youth minister, and everyone immediately fell in love. A small group of congregants secretly met, and decided to unceremoniously fire Rev. Lovejoy so the new minister could be the lead pastor.
Older ministers secretly fear it. The shiny new minister taking their place.
In reality, the shiny new minister is often the one being secretly canned. The new pastors are the ones who symbolize change and revitalization, and it scares those who just want to keep it the same. Often times, those are the people with the power, because they are the ones with the money. They have family that goes back generations.
I was triggered because that's how it happened to me. A few decided for the whole. I was the shiny new minister who came with the promise of change. I had to go. I found myself worrying for Lovejoy. Did he have a pension? What was his retirement? Being in that church for so long, did he have any friends who were not church members?
The congregants were reacting. That's actually what congregants do. They see something good, and find the quickest route to reach it. Real change always takes time, and that's where the congregants always fail. If it's not quick and easy, than it rarely happens. We live in a culture of instant gratification. It has bled through into our Church culture.
Bode: Why did Lisa fall for that?
Look, it's actually nice to see the overly pleasant Ned Flanders being taken down, but in this episode he was actually right.
I'm shocked too. I have this sneaking suspicion he'd tell his boys to avert their eyes if he saw me walking down the street. He was struggling with maintaining the sacred in his sanctuary. In reality, that was his fight, and it was not the fight Bode eventually fought. To earn the people of Springfield new sacred space, the previous space needed to be dismantled. That was a valid conversation for Flanders to have with Bode, but it never happened, because Bode never knew why Flanders had a problem.
That was the first sign that Bode was not right either. The modern church movement will flush the traditional church down the toilet to get their guitars and flashy production. They'll fight the scriptural fight without actually having the real scriptural fight. The fight isn't about God's love. The fight is about God's presence, and Ned was holding something sacred and right. (Stupid Ned Flanders.)
I think the reason Lisa bought the lie had to do more with that. What was sacred to Ned was not to Lisa. Bode's theology was a many path model. That is, there are many paths to God. Lisa was being told she was not alone in her personal journey. It was just, Ned's path was not included in Bode's many path model. That's where the lie came in. Also, many path theologians don't typically burn Bibles.
Bible Burning Was Where Bode Fell Apart
"Lisa, I was wrong." Bode was 19. He was doing something bold because he was foolish and young.
Speaking personally for a moment: I was once young and stupid, now I'm only stupid. Let me amend that, in my older years I realize when I'm stupid. That's wisdom. Well, part of wisdom.
Multi-path theologians don't burn Bibles. They read the desert fathers, the Koran, and ancient Hindu texts. They see the sacred in it all and hold it all with reverence.
Those who burn Bibles don't typically apologize for it later. Even Atheists know how special the Bible is to believers. You believe in something with the action of burning sacred text.
Perhaps you don't believe the text holds value. In burning the book you are telling them they are stupid in their belief system.
Perhaps the Bible was old and you were retiring it like an old US flag. The act of burning becomes a funeral of sorts.
Perhaps you are making a statement against a specific religious organization. The act of burning becomes a burning of a specific theology.
This is where Lovejoy and Bode were wrong for similar reasons. Which is worse, burning a Bible, or letting it gather dust in an empty pew? In that way, Lovejoy was no better. Buried or cremated. What's the difference? In both cases, the Word is dead.
The Beginning of Lent
"Lisa, you're bringing down our Lent. Even the fire eater is sad."
This one throwaway joke by Homer really brought it all home for me. We were about a quarter through Lent when Covid put us all in isolation, bringing churches online, and completely changing everything, for (I believe) forever. We won't be spending our lives stuck at home, with only a select few working in businesses. How we do things will change. Schools will be more diligent about not letting sick kids stay. Works will have stay-at-home employees. Churches found out how shut-ins feel. I don't think face masks are going away any time soon.
The whole two-part-episode dealt with issues that were very pre-Covid problems.
The camera makes things "more." What do I mean by "more"? Depending on the angle people far apart look close together, and people close look far apart. You have 30 seconds to tell the same story that took you 5 minutes in real life. It's condensed, and doesn't do well with things that are watered down. Church was watered down. Messages were fluffed. Actions were padded. There was lots of getting by and just going through the steps.
Homer was reminding us that those pre-Covid services were empty. Yeah, we gave up something for Lent. It was fun! I can lose those few pounds while I give up that sugary whatever it is I gave up!
This episode ended with me feeling like I was in their future. I couldn't be angry or upset with the faith traditions in the episode, because neither one can exist anymore. We don't live in that world anymore.
What will be when we begin this new world? I hope to God it was better than what we left, from both sides.